Susan Hatfield, a communication studies professor at Winona State University, gives an unusual project to her first-year students.

They form teams, and each gets $25. Their job is to turn that $25 into as much money as they can, with proceeds donated to the United Way of the Greater Winona Area.

The project has paid off: In five years, students have raised about $6,500.

The purpose is to put students’ collaboration skills to the test and make them more aware of ways they can benefit the community. The only limit on students’ fundraising initiatives is their own creativity.

Beth Forkner Moe, executive director of the Winona United Way, partners with Hatfield for the project every year.

“It’s a great way to get students involved in the community,” she said.

For freshmen Holly Loberg of Farmington, Minn., the project at first seemed much easier said than done.

“We all kind of thought it was going to be a lot of work,” Loberg said. Her group was the biggest in her class, and just finding time to meet proved to be a hassle.

“It’s not like high-school group projects,” she said. “There’s a lot of outside-class time.”

Hatfield’s students were unfamiliar with each other, and had to work with an unfamiliar community. The apprehension they felt was typical, she said. Most are hesitant to go off campus and network in the community.

That, Hatfield said, is part of the point.

“The comments I always get from students who have done the project in the past are that they had a great time, they made some friends, and they feel good about what they did,” she said.

Students also get the chance to learn more about volunteer opportunities in Winona. Moe meets with the classes a few times each semester to educate them about everything the United Way does for nonprofits, businesses, governments and faith communities.

“We’re able to expose 18- and 19-year-olds to the United Way when the most they’ve probably seen about it has been in football commercials, or if their parents have been involved,” she said. “It’s important to tell young people about this, because they’re our future leaders.”

Since coming up with the idea for the assignment in 2009, Hatfield and Moe have seen a wide array of fundraising projects. Students have sold candy bars, hand-warmers, apple pie, pumpkins and hand-made knitwear. They have held exercise classes, hosted gaming tournaments and raked leaves. One group two years ago put on a rap performance.

“With a little money and some motivation and creativity on their part, they can make a difference,” Hatfield said.

Loberg’s group started with a simple idea: puppy chow. They invested their $25 into making the simple snack in two flavors. After their first sale, to Loberg’s surprise, $25 had become $60.

They held another sale, this time with two additional flavors of puppy chow, and came away with $126. In the end, Loberg’s group raised the most money in their class.

“It just shows what five college freshmen can do,” she said.

Hatfield’s classes earned a combined $927 this year. That makes a total of about $6,500 raised for the United Way since the project began in 2009.

“You can’t not be proud of what these students did,” Hatfield said. “I hope they’ll take it with them to their own communities.”

Beyond earning money for a good cause, Moe said, there is one other thing students take away from the project every year.

“There are some really good friendships that form over the course of the project. That’s community-building, too.”

Loberg agreed.

“I got closer with the people in my class because of this project,” she said.

She and her group members remain active on the Facebook page they made for the project, keeping up with one another’s achievements and hanging out together outside of class.

“I wouldn’t trade that for the world,” she said.

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